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Sanctuary Bay by Laura J Burns and Melinda Metz

Reading challenges are all the rage these days, after last year’s PopSugar book challenge went viral. This year I’ve taken on The Secret Book Club’s challenge, and one item on the list is a Young Adult novel. It’s not my preferred genre but when I received an invitation from St Martin’s Press to read Laura J Burns and Melinda Metz’s new novel, Sanctuary Bay, I decided to take the opportunity to check something off the list. I was especially attracted by Melinda Metz, who authored the books that were the inspiration for the late 90s Roswell TV show.

Sarah slowed her pace as she closed in on them. Each time a pine bough slapped at her or her foot landed on a stick, she was sure they were going to hear. And what then? How would she explain being out here? Why was she out here?

The premise of the story is that a mixed race orphan receives an invitation to attend an elite and isolated private school, graduation from which guarantees her a good life. Flabbergasted by her luck, and thinking it must be some kind of mistake, Sarah Merson travels to the island and is blown away by the facilities, comfort and welcoming atmosphere. The catch – students must remain on the island until graduation with no outside contact. As Sarah begins to find her way around Sanctuary Bay’s social norms and winding underground tunnels, things start to seem a little off. Haunted by her past through overwhelming flashbacks, Sarah becomes convinced that the school is not all that it appears to be.

If something bad happens, wait until the room is safe. If you leave the tunnel, put the funny slitted door back on. Run fast. Find a lady with kids. Tell her your name is Sarah Merson. Merson. Merson. Merson. Merson. Ask for help.

I liked that the authors made an effort to include a character from a diverse background, with a poor upbringing; this allowed for a relatable perspective through which the elite world of the super-rich could be experienced. The opening prologue was chilling, and the suspense of the story was well-paced, building to an exciting climax. However, I hated that they resorted to the classic problem of having the Bad Guy explain his entire evil plan in a single expository monologue. This completely ruined the suspense and mystery of the novel. It was the equivalent of unmasking the villain at the end of Scooby Doo and having them rattle off that “those meddling kids” slogan; it was predictable, camp and not nearly creepy enough for all the build-up that had led to that moment. The cliffhanger at the end suggests a sequel in the works; with that in mind, I feel like this book could have been longer and taken its time to reveal all its secrets. It could have spent more time developing the characters as well, as they came across as fairly Barbie-doll-ish: everyone is ridiculously attractive and gifted.

Sarah was still trying to see all of this. You can make me relive this moment as much as you want, she told her freaky brain. She took the last step, breathing in the smell of freshly mown grass, her eyes still flicking over the school… Don’t go falling in love with it, not until you’re sure you are staying, she told herself sternly.

A major theme in the book is the sense of identity you get from your upbringing and background. As a foster-kid, Sarah has bounced around a lot and so she identifies with poverty and a lack of the freedom to get away with murder that is enjoyed by her wealthy peers at Sanctuary Bay. At first she resents them for it, judging them as being materialistic snobs whose money and sheltered upbringings makes their realities less real than hers; I liked that the novel made an effort to negate that, portraying an optimistic view that your future is what you make of it. That could be a good message for teens who may feel stuck in their own situation.

He constantly pissed her off, beautiful lips, amazing blue eyes, long, lean body, and all. She could still barely believe that this school had wanted her, but she’s taken Nate’s advice and squashed her resentment. The kids here generally seemed to get how good they had it at the academy. Unfortunately Ethan still brought out all her crap, as Nate had called it. He was a rich, entitled idiot and he didn’t even know it.

I was surprised by the level of kinkiness portrayed in the naughty parts; verging on BDSM and orgies, I found this to be a far cry from the YA novels I read when I was younger. Perhaps it is a result of YA novels being read by an older audience these days, or the proliferation of these topics in modern TV and movies, such as Game of Thrones and 50 Shades of Grey. I’m not sure how it contributed to the plot, but it was a fun break from the tension of secrets and fear that pervades the text, if merely for shock value. I think more could have been gained by having the main character react more emotionally to all the random group sex and fetish-play she was taking part in (or watching); it felt like it was mentioned a bit off-hand.

Her whole body started to shake, so she hugged herself tighter, taking a deep breath. Her imagination was taking over. She wasn’t in danger from the spirits of the dead. She was in danger from cold-blooded killers.

On the whole, the premise is interesting, but I felt that it was too shallowly and hurriedly executed. It read like a detailed outline but there were some scary and very original parts as well. I think that a longer book with more demonstration rather than exposition dialogue could have been better, and a more thorough exploration of the different characters would have made me care about them more when they were in danger. A quick read, but it could use some more development.